Defiance (2013-15) was an original commission science-fiction TV series which has aired on the SyFy channel in both the US and the UK. Set on Earth in the near-future after a war between humans and immigrant aliens who arrived to settle on the planet, and whose technology has greatly changed Earth’s physical and biological environment through a process named as ‘terraforming’, the show was premised around exploring the interactions and tensions between the various races that inhabit the titular town of Defiance (renamed from St. Louis in the US). Defiance’s inhabitants included humans (primarily reluctant lawkeeper Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz)), as well as members of alien races such as Irathients (spiritual, noble and tribal people who are most noticeably represented through Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), a war orphan who has travelled with Nolan since he rescued her) and Castithans (a pale-skinned and treacherous race represented by the scheming Datak and Stahma Tarr (played by Tony Curran and Jamie Murphy respectively)).
Defiance‘s lead characters from left to right – Datak Tarr (Tony Curran), Stahma Tarr (Jamie Murphy), Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz), Kenya Rosewater (Mia Kershner), Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler), Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) and Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene).
On October 16th of last year, news reports circulated that SyFy wouldn’t be renewing Defiance after its third season. Declining ratings provided SyFy’s rationale for cancelling the programme but this was despite the show remaining the network’s most-watched series. However, digging deeper, issues of branding and market position may have played a more decisive factor since, as Nellie Andreeva commented for Deadline, “Defiance is the latest Syfy drama to end this year, joining Dominion, Haven, Lost Girl and Continuum, as Syfy is overhauling its original slate.” Despite a small (and ongoing) campaign circulating on Twitter under the #SaveDefiance hashtag, and some celebratory comments made towards the show from a feminist perspective, Defiance (and its stablemates) seems destined to become consigned to obscurity for all but its most ardent fans.
Within TV Studies, though, Defiance’s relative absence within academic work appears curious, not only because of its status as a (moderately successful) series circulating discourses concerning how ‘cult’ audiences are imagined within a niche-orientated context, but because of the series’ engagement with practices of transmediality. As Elizabeth Wagmeister observed for Variety upon news of the show’s cancellation:
“Defiance” was Syfy’s big experiment with transmedia storytelling as the series’ storylines were specifically designed to mesh with the narrative of the video game of the same name, produced by Trion Worlds. The TV series revolved around the battles of seven alien races existing on a much-changed planet Earth.
Although Defiance (the TV series and the MMO game) never came good on its initial promise of continuous interaction between its onscreen and online (hyper)diegesis (as the initial press image included below suggested), the programme’s ambitions and approach to transmediality would appear to position it as a key text within contemporary academic debates in TV Studies. To date, though, Defiance has only received passing note within studies of transmediality (Evans 2015) and beyond. What does Defiance’s scholarly overlooking subsequently tell us about current priorities within the field of cult TV Studies?
Defiance’s initial press image
It’s fair to say that studies of cult TV are, at present, dominated by a focus upon two or three series – Doctor Who (2005- ), Sherlock (2010- ) and Supernatural (2005- ) – and there are undoubtedly highly valid reasons for each programme’s levels of visibility. Regarding Doctor Who and Sherlock, issues of branding (Johnson 2012) and the transnational trade in television series (Weissmann 2012), alongside the transcultural recontextualisation of these (Chin and Morimoto 2013), have been core areas of interest for TV Studies in recent years. A focus on Doctor Who and Sherlock undoubtedly dovetails with these debates given that both are prominent programme brands which have been marketed, distributed and appropriated globally. Additionally, both series have been important examples of transmediality: Doctor Who has been at the forefront of the BBC’s digital policies for many years (Perryman 2008, 2014) and has provided an additional way of exploring how ‘public service’ and ‘commercial’ discourses continue to mutate contemporaneously (Evans 2012; Johnson 2013; Hills 2015). Both Doctor Who and Sherlock are therefore examples of what Matt Hills (2010) has named ‘mainstream-cult’ series and allow (cult) TV Studies scholars to explore the variety of ways in which ‘cult’ practices and preferences have moved from the margins to become industrially recognised and reconfigured within an ongoing context of technological change and increasing competition for audiences.
The current trinity of visibility within studies of ‘cult’ TV ?
Similarly, with Supernatural, there are again multiple valid reasons for this programme’s prominence with studies of cult TV fandom such as its longevity and its large fan community. As is frequently recognised (Hills 2002; Gwenllian-Jones and Pearson 2004; Abbott 2010), ‘cult’ appeal is typically generated through audience practices and so it seems appropriate that the most active fan communities garner larger amounts of academic debate. Although writing fan fiction is not the only way of expressing one’s fan identity, a brief glance at fanfiction.net demonstrates that whilst Supernatural tops the list for TV entries with 112,000 (with Doctor Who and Sherlock being ranked third and fourth respectively), Defiance has a comparatively paltry 149 fan-written stories contributed. Moreover, previous studies of fan fiction (for example, see Hellekson and Busse 2006, 2014) have indicated the strong appeal and outlet that this provides for a wide range of female (fan) audiences whose practices and tastes have typically been overlooked and/or degraded within popular culture. By highlighting Supernatural’s prominence within current academic understandings of ‘cult’ TV, then, I am not intending to dismiss the show and its fans by adopting the position of the authoritative, typically male (as Joanne Hollows (2003) and Jacinta Read (2003) have demonstrated), cult TV aca-fan attempting to discipline the field (although, I fear, some may take my comments that way).
Nevertheless, given the (over-)representation of these shows within contemporary studies of ‘cult’ TV, it does seem that a narrowing of the focus and understanding of ‘cult’ television is currently observable. One consequence of this is that series which fall outside of ‘mainstream’ production and distribution contexts, which develop brand identities in accordance with industrially-imagined discourses of niche ‘cult’ appeal, and experiment with transmedia storytelling in alternative and innovative ways (as is the case with Defiance) risk becoming forgotten and their potential contributions to academic knowledge on core areas of debate being lost as TV Studies’ “zone of liveness” (Hills 2010: 101) inevitably moves on to new programmes and debates.
Defiance (and the other shows cancelled by SyFy last fall) currently seems to exemplify what I would call invisible cult television within the field. This argument is built upon the positions taken in a special issue of Critical Studies in Television from 2010 edited by Brett Mills which intended to explore “television programmes, which, despite being long- running and consistently garnering high audience ratings, are repeatedly ignored by the vast majority of academic work.” (1) Although Defiance doesn’t directly adhere to Mills’ characterisation through being neither long-running nor generating widespread appeal, his general call to look at marginalised examples seems applicable – especially when considering a form of television which itself bears associations with minority interests and unconventional ways of engaging. Defiance and its peers therefore appear to be being rendered invisible in relation to the current priorities for studies of cult TV, overlooked by scholars focusing on more popular, recognisable (and, dare I say it, attractive to academic publishers) examples which results in directly-targeted ‘cult’ TV programmes featuring less prominently in scholarly debates.
Publicity image for Defiance‘s third season
To clarify my own position, then, through discussing Defiance I am not calling here for complete abandonment of scholarly interest in ‘mainstream-cult’ series like Doctor Who, Sherlock or Supernatural. There are some highly exciting, and greatly overdue, forthcoming studies which engage with these shows such as Lorna Jowett’s study of gender in Doctor Who and Paul Booth’s innovative study of ‘SuperWhoLock’, which seeks to explore trans-fandom rather than focusing on a singular fan object, to name but a few. Additionally, glancing over the contents page for the edited collection Time on TV (Jowett, Robinson and Simmons forthcoming) indicates a widening of ‘cult’ TV series, both past and present, which have received academic recognition. Yet, it is worth remembering that in the contemporary milieu both programmes and channels “have aggressively forged “brand identities” for themselves as a way of standing out in the increasingly diversified cable environment”. (Hendershot 2004: 4) To avoid narrowing what is understood as ‘cult’ TV within our discipline, it is thus necessary to consider the branding, transmedia strategies and audience appropriations of less visible examples such as Defiance so as to maintain plurality, recognise the diversity of what constitutes ‘cult’ TV during a specific historical moment and fully consider what these series can contribute to ongoing areas of interest. This is arguably of extra importance when considering a channel such as SyFy given its ongoing commitment to producing original programming which targets and positions ‘cult’ audiences. Invisibility may be a recurrent theme in the network’s texts, but it shouldn’t result in the channel or its content becoming overlooked by scholars.
And finally, to end on a moment of reflexivity, yes, I’m highly aware of a pot-kettle-black situation emerging here given that my own publication list contributes to the problem I am outlining. Although exploring wider debates towards nostalgia and authorship in cult TV forms, these have taken place through using examples like Doctor Who and Twin Peaks as objects of focus. Take this as my first attempts in trying to change that.
Ross Garner is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. He has published various articles discussing nostalgia, popular memory and television institutions in edited collections and journals and is currently preparing the monograph Nostalgia, Digital Television and Transmediality for publication in 2017 with Bloomsbury.